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Trim Prepositional Phrases for Leaner Writing

Posted by Terri Porter   May 11, 2016 7:30:00 AM

shearsA reader recently wrote to our Ask the Grammar Experts service about how to reduce the use of multiple prepositional phrases in writing. We offer five tips below for doing just that. But first, let’s look at why multiple prepositional phrases can be problematic. Consider this sentence:

None of the reports about the company’s current performance compared with last year’s provided members of the board with an understanding of the reasons for the drastic decline in profits.

This one sentence contains eight prepositional phrases, alternately highlighted in blue and orange.
The Chicago Manual of Style (5.183) recommends a ratio of one preposition for every 10 to 15 words. Using that guideline, the sentence above (29 words) should have no more than two prepositions. Here’s one possible rewrite (18 words) that contains two prepositional phrases:

The financial reports could not explain to board members why profits declined so drastically in the past year.

This version (12 words) is preposition-free:

The year-end financial reports could not explain why profits declined so drastically.

Both rewrites are considerably leaner and clearer. The following tips show you five ways to similarly trim prepositional phrases from your own writing.

1. Delete the Phrase

Depending on the context, you can simply eliminate some prepositional phrases. In the example above, “about the company” is unnecessary because the reader can infer from the rest of the sentence that the reports pertain to a company. Likewise, “of the board” and “to board members” (in the first rewrite) may be superfluous, again depending on context.

2. Eliminate Buried Verbs

Buried verbs result when nouns formed from verbs are used in place of verbs. These noun forms often end in -ance, -ence, -ity, -ment, -sion or -tion and require the use of additional words, particularly prepositions. Some examples are in violation of instead of violate, reveal the identity of instead of identify and conduct an assessment of instead of assess.

In the example above, we can eliminate two prepositional phrases by changing “provided members of the board with an understanding” to “could not explain.” Changing “of the reasons for the drastic decline in profits” to “why profits declined so drastically” clears out three more.

3. Use Adverbs, Stronger Verbs or Adjectives Instead

Using a prepositional phrase to modify a verb instead of using a stronger verb or an adverb can dilute your writing.  Consider the following examples:

Verb with prepositional phrase: Thomas stated with passion that he was innocent.

Verb with adverb: Thomas passionately stated he was innocent.

Stronger verb: Thomas averred he was innocent.

Each successive example demonstrates increasingly leaner writing. Similarly, you can replace prepositional phrases with adjectives, as in the second rewrite above, which changes “in the past year” to “year-end.” 

4. Replace a Prepositional Phrase with a Genitive

Changing something to the genitive case essentially means using an apostrophe and an s to show possession (the lawyer’s briefcase), relationship (the patient’s doctor), agency (the company’s representative) or description (a summer’s day), among other things. Prepositional phrases that include the word of are often good candidates for replacement. In the example above, we can change “members of the board” to “board members” (or simply delete it, as indicated in the second rewrite).

5. Use Active Voice

The explicit or implied use of the preposition by often signals passive voice. Thus, changing from passive (in green) to active voice almost always eliminates a prepositional phrase (in red). For example:

Passive: The report was written by the finance committee.

Active: The finance committee wrote the report.

Apply these five tips for eliminating prepositional phrases and you’ll be well on your way to leaner writing in no time. If you have additional tips, be sure to share them in the comments below.


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Topics: prepositions, prepositional phrases

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